There are two ball courts in the site, the main one is located between the A-1 and A-2 plazas and had a ritualistic function for the Mayas. Two teams played with a hard rubber ball using only the elbows, hips and knees, triying to introduce the ball through stone hoops attached to the sides of the ball court. It was a matter of life or death, the winning team were treated as heroes, while the leader of the loosing team was killed as a sacrifice to the gods.
The Royal Palace is located on the A III compound, with four structures surrounding the plaza; the main building is the restored Royal Palace the place where the ruler lived. The building can be climbed and offers a magnificent views of the main pyramid of El Castillo and the jungle around.
The entrance to the ruins is a long road passing through the jungle, a nice walk where you can see birds, monkeys and even tucans. There´s a small information center with maps, pictures, information boards and a small reproduction of the city.
The west side of the structure has a 10-ft stucco made replica covering the original freezes. These freezes once decorated the entire construction and depict representations of the God Sun, the Moon, Venus and some of the Mayan days. There are also some headless men who were deliberately beheaded by the Maya for some reason.
The main feature of the site is the huge and partially excavated pyramid of El Castillo (the Castle) wich rises 130 feet from the main plaza. A steep but short climb takes you to the top. The west and east parts of the pyramid has some interesting stucco replicas of the original covered freezes. The pyramid consists (as in other Mayan constructions) of a a low terrace designed to hold additional stone buildings, after a temple was built another was built on top of it and so on, depending on the number of kings who reigned.
If you want to visit the ruins you must take a hand-cranked cable ferry from the small village of San José Succotz accross the Mopan River. After that there´s a mile to the main entrance of the site. The ferry is free of charge (but tips are always welcome).
From where we were staying in the San Ignacio area, the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-too-nich) were very close at hand. A 15-minute walk brought us to the hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River (see my 'Local Customs' tip), after which, we made about a 1 mile uphill jungle walk away from the river on a good paved road. We were out and about early (8:30 AM), so it was quite a peaceful stroll as we came upon the entrance to the Xunantunich Archaeological Reserve. In addition to the ticket office, run by the Belize Institute of Archaeology (US$5 pp entry), off to the left of this scene is a small gift/drinks shop and restroom facilities. There were not yet any visitor vehicles in the parking lot and only one other (Canadian) couple from our Trek Stop accommodations was ahead of us as we continued up the road to the ruins at the top of the hill.
If you visit Xunantunich, you must climb to the top of the tallest pyramid, called "El Castillo." The views from the top were the highlight of the tour. We were able to see the smaller pyramids, the Cayo District, and part of Guatemala.
After our morning walk to Xunantunich, we chilled out on the internet for a while and then had lunch. However, by 1 PM the heat had built up quite nicely to the 30 C (86 F) range, so we decided to take advantage of the Trek Stop's river tubing adventure package. For US$10 each, we hopped in the rear of one of their pick-up trucks and they drove us to the Mopan River just upstream of the hand-cranked ferry to Xunantunich (note the local guy in the photo standing by a small island out in the shallow rapids). There, we were both outfitted with life jackets, which were attached by a small rope to the large rubber inner tubes that we were both given.
It was then into the water as we began our 'jungle cruise' adventure! This was a really fun trip as just the two of us floated down the winding Mopan for more than two hours, traversing a series of eight Class II and III rapids, interspersed with quiet stretches of water. These sections were very peaceful as the thickly forested banks drifted by and colourful Amazon Kingfishers flew past. Of course this was after the first set of rapids tipped us both out of our tubes, but that was the only time that happened. Each set of rapids was fun as you could hear the roar of the water as you floated closer. Usually there was a small island in the middle of the river at each of these, and it was difficult to guess which way was the safest to avoid the deepest drop into a back-swirling pool (Sue got caught in a couple of those but my 'inertia' carried me through!). Also had to remember to bring your butt up out of the water and lay straight as a board on the tubes to avoid scraping on the rocks as we went over these ledges! We had a fantastic time, at last reaching the hotel beside the final Clarissa Falls rapids. There, we paddled into shore and called the Trek Stop from their bar area - the truck soon arrived to pick us up. I don't have any good photos of this because we did not take any glasses, watches, cameras or anything for this one!
Located at the opposite end of Xunantunich from El Castillo, is a smaller structure with several levels and stairways. The information we read on site indicated that this was where the ruling class and/or high priests ended up living. There is evidence of earthquake damage to the structures in Xunantunich and it is believed that, toward the end of the habitation of this site, the working class lost faith in the protective powers of their rulers, and possibly even sacrificed one of them (hmm, maybe that is why that guy without a head showed up on the Castillo frieze?!).
Since returning from this trip, I came across information that was gleaned from lake-bottom core samples taken in the middle of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. This lake has no inlet or outlet, so it's water level is solely dependent on rainfall and evaporation. As a result, the core samples give a good indication of how hot or wet it has been in this area over the past 8000 years. By analyzing the presence of white layers of gypsum, and carbon dating seeds and shells in the material, the study concluded that an extended drought hit this area at about 900 AD - the most severe one experienced in the previous 7000 years. This drought corresponds to the end of the Mayan temple building and record-keeping that had been going on for several hundred years. Possibly the end of Xunantunich as well??
With a pyramid as tall as El Castillo and being located on top of a limestone ridge, the views from the top are spectacular (hey, these Mayans knew what they were doing)! We were really impressed with the panoramic sights laid out before us as we looked across the border into Guatemala and also over the surroundng Belizian jungles! It was also great to be able to look down on the Xunantunich site itself to get a different perspective on the other buildings. The one furthest away in this photo is believed to be the housing area where the ruler/priests lived when this site was a thriving Mayan community.
Our plan was working perfectly - almost total silence except for the refreshing breeze that helped to cool us down after our climbing exertions (second photo shows Sue and the stone combs at the top of the pyramid). We just sat there on top for several minutes enjoying this moment in time. Later, when I was sitting in the outdoor seating area at our Trek Stop restaurant, I noticed that I could actually see this peak of El Castillo protruding above the distant jungle tree tops.
Xunantunich holds a special place amongst the many Mayan ruins in Belize because it was the first of their sites to be to be opened to the public when the ferry and road were installed in 1954. Although the site is presently known by the name given to it by early explorers, and translates as 'stone lady', recent work has turned up the actual Mayan name for the site: 'Ka-at Witz' or 'supernatural mountain'.
The most impressive structure on the site is the 135-ft (40-m) high El Castillo pyramid, the second tallest one in Belize. The top of this structure still has intricate 10-ft (3-m) high carvings on two of it's faces - with the larger (Eastern) of these friezes protected by a replica artifical covering, as shown here with me standing below it for scale. The second photo shows another frieze in it's 'natural' state without a protective cover. As for the purpose of the friezes, from one of the articles on Xunantunich: "Archaeologists say the friezes depict astronomical themes related to rulership and the accession of power. One mask with big ears and ear ornaments is supposed to represent the sun god. Signs for the moon, the planet Venus and different Mayan days are also displayed. Yet to be explained is the unknown, unidentified man who was beheaded for some reason."
Steps lead to the top of the structure from two sides and although steep, are not difficult to climb.
It was a good run while we had it, but we noticed the first tour crowd arriving at Xunantunich while we were still perched atop El Castillo. Although they busied themselves at the far end of the site for a while, it was not too long before some very small people could be seen drifting toward the main attraction of the Reserve. Although the side of the pyramid looks to angle down very sharply here, it was not actually too bad to navigate. The steps and pathways on the two sides of the pyramid were quite easy to use - not nearly as scarey as Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan area!
We were staying practically on the doorstep of Xunantunich, so it was no problem for us to get there for the Reserve's opening time. Belize is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination for both land travellers and cruiseship tours. Earlier in our trip, at the Belize Zoo (see my 'Belmopan' page), we had already experienced some of the congestion that bus loads of tourists can bring with them so we figured we may as well get there early for a peaceful tour.
After looking at several interesting relics of stone stella and a historical overview of Xunantunich (at it's peak in the years 650-1000 AD) located in buildings to protect them from the elements, we continued out onto the flat open space of the site. This is quite a small Mayan site compared to others we have visited - Tikal the largest, then Chichen Itza and Tulum all being larger. It was time to do some exploring in the refreshing morning air!
Besides its height, El Castillo is known for its stucco frieze, which was excavated in 1993. What you see is actually a fiberglass reconstruction of it - the original has been reburied in the building behind the reconstruction, in order to preserve it. It used to go all the way around the temple, but the reconstruction is just on one side. Symbols on this building include a headless man and various sexual/fertility symbols.